Before I launch into this, I just want to say: everything I learned about the President Coolidge came from a book Andrew and Leslie brought back to me, The Lady and the President, The Life and Loss of the S.S. President Coolidge by Peter Stone, with Allan Powers and Reece Discombe. The book has more detail about the history of the Coolidge and her owners, her experiences in both peace and wartime, the development of Luganville during wartime, the military inquiry into the President Coolidge's loss, the salvage process afterward, and the experience of diving the Coolidge. If you love this little snippet of her story, you should buy the book and really "dive in".
Oh! Look at that, I'm punny! Okay, without further ado.
Though I am feeling better about the “wreck diving”, more should be said about the life and demise of this beautiful ship. It isn't fair for you to picture the President Coolidge only as she is now; a playground for SCUBA divers, sleeping in the dust of the seabed. She inspired hope during the Great Depression, came to the world’s aid during World War II, and then gave the ultimate sacrifice. Even in the end, she kept all but two of her passengers safe.
President Coolidge and her identical twin President Hoover were commissioned and built at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia. They laid her first keel plate on March 24, 1930. Completed in the midst of the depression and prohibition, President Coolidge could not be christened with Neptune’s preferred fare of Rum and/or Champagne. Maybe if she had, none of this trouble would have happened. Instead, on February 21, 1931, First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge christened President Coolidge’s hull with a bottle of water gathered from the river running through the Coolidge Family Farm. Then, President Coolidge slid down the launching ramp, borne into the waters of the James River.
President Coolidge was not intended to be a warship. She started her life as a beautifully appointed passenger ship. “She looked very smart in her Dollar Line colours: a thin yellow line just below the white strake around the hull and black funnels painted with a broad red band and the white Dollar sign.” She had accommodations for 988 passengers and crew of 324 to 385. Her first class accommodations included spacious staterooms, a lounge, a smoking room, a tea garden, a theaterfor “sound pictures,” a gymnasium, a playroom for children, two swimming pools adorned with mosaic tile finish, and a sun deck with an area of artificial sand for a “beach.” She had the most up to date propulsion and electrical technology allowing her passengers to have both hot and cold water, and forced ventilation to keep her accommodations an even temperature. And this in the era before air conditioning! The first class saloon was two decks high with a balcony for musicians and space for 272 diners. Her walls and ceilings were paneled with polished woods from all over the world; art deco designed furniture and “fashionable appointments” gave her the look of a classic beauty.
Underwater, a ventilation fan.
The sculpture of The Lady and her unicorn adorned an electric fireplace in the First Class Smoking Room, “one of the largest and most impressive areas of the ship.” Now, scuba divers come from far and wide to weave their way through the ship to place a kiss on the Lady’s cheek for good luck - unless Paul is your dive guide and you are Leslie. In which case you are required to kiss the Unicorn’s bum instead.
Andrew, going in to give the lady her kiss.
The Coolidge’s passengers sailed in luxury between her home port of San Francisco, California and various ports of the South Pacific and Asia throughout the depression. When Robert Dollar passed away, his son and business partners slowly pillaged the company of its wealth and misappropriated subsidies paid by the US Government under mail contracts to encourage transpacific traffic. Yet, the President Coolidge remained profitable. Over and over again, she beat speed records making her crossings: Yokohama and San Francisco in 9 days, 9 hours, 51 minutes, and Honolulu to San Francisco in 4 days, 2hours, 58 minutes. She carried diplomats, businessmen, and even immigrants in her holds. On a trip departing San Francisco in May of 1937, she carried General Douglas MacAurthur and his new bride to Manila, Philippines. This seemed like a foreshadowing of darker times ahead.
In 1939 the world began to change. Suddenly, sea travel in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas became dangerous. Several of her sister ships had to alter their typical sail plans to avoid becoming caught in Europe’s growing violence. President Coolidge’s routes to Asia also became fraught with peril. Suddenly, Japan was fighting with China, capturing more and more of the South Pacific. In October of 1938, the Japanese refused to clear President Coolidge to leave Shanghai for San Francisco. With China and Japan fighting over $4,000,000, worth of silver in her hold, President Coolidge’s owners had to agree to leave behind the intended silver export to set her free.
By October of 1940, Americans evacuated Asia in droves, fleeing to the safety of American shores. President Coolidge took them home. She packed her quarters with as many as 800 passengers on each trip. On one trip, President Coolidge brought home a thirteen year old girl whose parents had been brutally murdered, leaving her alone in a foreign land. In this tumultuous time, the President Coolidge even rode out a typhoon to get her passengers home safely. As she sailed, President Coolidge watched and reported the movements of more and more Japanese military vessels. During one return trip home, she watched as more than one hundred Japanese battle ships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines and supply ships moved in a fleet southward in the Formosan Straights off Amoy.
With war becoming inevitable, the United States requested she become a transport ship for reinforcing the garrisons in the South Pacific. Without hesitation she agreed, and on June 2, 1941 President Coolidge joined the Army. Her first mission was to make a speedy trip from Honolulu to the Philippines to rescue 250 Americans stranded without passage any other way. Soon, the Japanese were refusing to allow President Coolidge into their ports to retrieve her citizens. The United States eventually negotiated to allow her into the Shanghai port one last time, but she did so along with a fellow Army cruiser and several PT boats. Hers was the first record of an official Pacific Convoy. The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she was en route from Manila to San Francisco under escort of heavy cruiser Louisville, halfway to her scheduled stop in Honolulu. Who knows? Maybe she heard the buzz of Kamikaze engines in the sky.
With war declared, the Army stripped President Coolidge as best they could. Her owners set aside any removable art, furniture, silver, and china, with the hope that she would return to her normal life once her military duty was complete. Anything they could not remove, (like the Lady and the Unicorn) they covered with plywood for protection. They painted her hull the drab grey of a warship. Her new mission: to carry groups of 5,000 troops and their military supplies into Pacific battle zones. Imagine going from a max passenger/crew capacity of 1,375 to 5,000; her lavish accommodations transformed to stark military barracks.
On January 12, 1942, she went to war. She called on Melbourne, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand. On her first trip, she carried President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines and General Douglas MacArthur to the United States.
Meanwhile, at four minutes past midnight on Monday, August 3, 1942, three US destroyers steamed under the cover of darkness out of the Segond Channel, of Espirto Santo, Vanuatu. They were to drop one hundred and seventy one landmines in a specific pattern to guard the entrance to the United States military outpost in Luganville, Espirto Santo, Vanuatu. This outpost served as the United States’ key Pacific base in the battle to retake Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands. Determined to halt Japan’s march westward in the Pacific Ocean, the United States needed to provision Luganville and Solomons needed more troops and more supplies.
Two months later, President Coolidge steamed away from San Francisco on her final voyage. She carried thousands of military troops, packed to the gills with military issue uniforms for cold weather. Her troops figured they were heading to Alaska. Instead, she steamed west. All her lights were darkened, to protect her from an enemy strike at night. She steamed in a zig zag pattern, fast enough to outrun an enemy submarine if she turned this way and that. Day after day, everyone expected to turn North. Bets were being made and lost in her sleeping quarters and on her sundeck. She never turned North.
Instead, she made a stop in Noumea, New Caledonia. There, she received orders to sail to Espirito Santo, Vanuatu. President Coolidge and her Captain reviewed the instructions over and over, making sure they understood their route. The instructions said nothing of landmines. Instead, they warned of enemy submarines lurking, especially near Luganville’s entrance channels. Under the cover of darkness, she left Noumea and headed toward Vanuatu.
President Coolidge preferred not to think too much about what could be out there in the dark. She steamed ahead, letting her Captain fret and wonder with each minute that passed whether there would be a submarine strike. President Coolidge kept her bow forward. In the early morning light, she could see the green hills of Vanuatu. She noted a US warship patrolling one entrance. The warship signaled President Coolidge, challenging her to produce the secret signal to confirm she is a friendly vessel. President Coolidge’s ensign sent the signal, and the warship returned an all clear response. She and her Captain surveyed the chart to see the best entry into the harbor, they choose the very same entrance Captain Andrew and I chose to enter last week. That entrance is wide, straight, and easy. It is the clear choice, especially for a large vessel like President Coolidge - unless of course a series of landmines have been laid down to prevent its use.
Steaming ahead with no inclination anything was wrong, she and her Captain were looking forward to completing their passage safe from Japanese Submarines. Suddenly, her ensign yells STOP! STOP!!!! The Captain ordered reversed engines, and as fast as she could she halted her propellers and twisted them in reverse. Someone in the harbor saw her approaching through the mined entrance and tried to send a message. “Stop. Wrong way. Land Mines are laid there.”
Between the word STOP and WRONG, she felt the thunder of an explosion beneath her hull, the plates beneath her engine room were ripped open, leaving a gushing wound.
Underwater. Gauges and Engine Room
My engine room pictures didn't turn out at all because my camera ran out of battery. These photos are courtesy of Aaron Fletcher's cousin, Greame. Thanks, Greame!
The explosion killed one of her firemen on impact; another was trapped in a ventilator. Men began scrambling around to escape the flooding engine room. A second explosion blasted her, and this time both she and her Captain knew she wouldn't survive. The Captain instructed the helmsman to steer toward land, full steam ahead, hoping to beach her on dry land. Instead, she hit a craggy ledge of coral. Water was overtaking her; nothing could be done. Orders were given to abandon ship. All she could do was hang on long enough to get everyone off. Her crew deployed anchors to try to keep her in place, and it helped, but only for about an hour and a half.
Her First Assistant Engineer had been with her since her very first voyage. He was in the engine room when the first blast hit. With water rushing in, sparks flying everywhere, he heard the fireman trapped inside a ventilator. He and another fireman clambered over the boiler to the ventilator where they tossed a rope to the trapped man and pulled him free. By the time they reached the upper decks, President Coolidge had slipped over onto her side.
Military personnel were now scrambling down cargo nets and rope ladders. At first they tried to take their guns and personal effects, but then realized their equipment had to be abandoned. Guns, gas masks, helmets, ammunition can be found throughout the ship, dropped in place upon ordered to do so. Down below, spaces that once were flat and easily walked upon had become vertical shafts. Men were trying to climb up and out now that she had tipped over. Captain Elwood Euart held a rope taught to allow his men to climb up; just as his last troop made it to the top, he tied the rope around his waist and requested that two of his men pull him out. But, it was too late. President Coolidge couldn’t hold on any longer. She slipped off the coral ledge and began her descent to the sea floor 35 meters below at her bow, 70 meters below at her stern. Captain Euart fell with her. The two men trying to pull him out were sucked below the water with her, but were able to swim to the surface.
On October 26, 1942, 10:52 a.m. - the same day the battle of Guadalacanal began - President Coolidge, Captain Euart and the fireman who died in the first blast fell together to their last resting place.
What is death? Our fear of it can cripple us, prevent us from fulfilling our missions. If we do not move from the place we know best, we feel safe. We presume nothing bad can befall us there. This is, of course, a falsehood. How many ships do I know who are wasting away, ignored and decrepit in their slip? When the war began, President Coolidge could have returned to her port in San Francisco, hidden herself and her finery, hoping to wait until better times. She did not. She volunteered her whole heart and soul; she set aside all her physical beauty and offered all that was strong. I’m certain she was afraid. I’m sure in those final moments, she was heart broken. But, as she laid at rest in the bottom of the sea, she had much to be ponder. She had many experiences of which she could be proud. She did not waste away in safety and comfort.
I guess she is a lesson to us. In her death, she was not lost. Instead, death delivered President Coolidge to a new life as a SCUBA wreck. It’s a different life, one that is unfamiliar and frightening to me when I think of it. Like any life, I’m sure it has its beauty and its darkness.
Someday, her beautiful metal hull will dissolve in the salt-solution of the sea. Minerals absorbed into the ecosystem of us all. Will humans learn to mine the minerals of the seafloor? Who knows, maybe in time she will be recreated as a ship again. She doesn’t know what is next, and neither do I. If we have courage like President Coolidge, we will serve a mighty purpose in this life and all that follows.
Great love and respect to you, President Coolidge. From, S/V Sonrisa